Rob Pennock
March 2016

Steven Isserlis is noted for his use of gut strings and old-world approach to interpretation. So in this, his second version of the Elgar, he isn’t afraid throughout the work to hold onto a note or phrase, adjust the tempo, insert pauses, use occasional portamenti and variable vibrato to help him communicate his vision of a work. In the Adagio introduction to the Concerto the opening tempo is flowing but he then slows before coming back to the opening speed, he then takes his time throughout the movement and indulges in some entirely appropriate rhapsodic, but very inward, soul-searching. His articulation in the Scherzo is immaculate, the phrasing suavely elegant. As you would expect he sings the Adagio, using a huge range of piano dynamics and intense, plaintive tone. In the finale once again his bowing is immaculate and despite all the tempo changes he maintains the tension.

Walton’s Cello Concerto is given a performance that is light years away from the wonderfully romantic gestures of the dedicatee Gregor Piatagorsky on RCA. Rather, Isserlis concentrates on the works many introspective moments and thereby conveys a rare sense of intimacy, although he is also able to power his way through the second movement Allegro appassionato and encompass the varied moods of the final variations.

The shorter works are also beautifully realised (Imogen Holst’s The fall of the leaf is beguilingly idyllic) which brings us to the conducting, which particularly in the Elgar, is pretty non-descript, the Philharmonia too often sound as though they are plodding on behind and only really come alive in forte passages. Nevertheless, these performances should be heard, there are few—if any—cellists alive today who could match Isserlis’s masterful playing in these works.